Culture Secretary Chris Smith is set to require councils to open their libraries in the evening and at weekends - backing a key aim of the TES libraries campaign.
Welcoming the Open All Hours campaign launched last week, he promised action to tackle, "the decline and decay of the past two decades," which have seen opening hours slashed and a dramatic fall in book buying.
Writing in this week's TES, Mr Smith announced for the first time that new regulations will lay down requirements on "the range of opening hours - not just how many per week but when in the week, to match the available leisure time of different age groups in the local population."
A senior government source said that libraries had to be open at times to suit the whole community - including children, the elderly and working people. He insisted that they must respond to changing lifestyles in the same ways as banks, supermarkets and bookshops. "Emphatically that means that evenings and weekend opening have got to be on the agenda," he said.
One of The TES campaign's key aims is to ensure that a central library in each local authority is open 60 or more hours a week, at times suitable for modern living. Other public libraries should be open at least 45 hours per week.
Library opening hours have fallen dramatically over the past 20 years. In 1976 there were 173 libraries open more than 60 hours each week, now there are just six.
Guy Daines, of the Library Association, welcomed the Government's move. "It is the opening hours available outside nine-to-five which make a real difference to large sections of the public," he said.
However, Mr Smith announced no new money to help councils meet these standards. Neil Fletcher, head of education, leisure and tourism at the Local Government Association, warned that there could be a groundswell of resentment against the proposals unless they are properly funded.
"There are cost implications involved and councils cannot develop these services without the financial cost being considered," he said.
Extending opening hours could be the start of a radical overhaul of the library service. Ministers are monitoring developments in authorities such as Tower Hamlets which are putting libraries in supermarkets. Chris Smith has promised to rethink, "where libraries are located (and) how they are run," as well as opening hours.
Chris Smith, Platform, 13 Analysis, 18